At a New York City ceremony packed as much with jabs at Amazon as with jazzy entrance music, the National Book Foundation crowned a newcomer. Former Marine Phil Klay took home the National Book Award for fiction, winning the prize for his debut short story collection Redeployment.
Klay, who had been deployed in Iraq, appeared taken aback by the honor on stage.
“I can’t think of a more important conversation to be having — war’s too strange to be processed alone,” he said in his acceptance speech. “I want to thank everyone who picked up the book, who read it and decided to join the conversation.”
Across a dozen stories told from the first-person perspective, Redeployment is at its heart a meditation on war — and the responsibility that everyone, especially the average citizen, bears for it. The book beat out a shortlist that included Marilynne Robinson, one of literature’s most celebrated living writers and the favorite coming into the night. Also on the shortlist were Emily St. John Mandel, Anthony Doerr and Rabih Alameddine.
Meanwhile, judges went for a literary heavyweight in the poetry category, selecting Louise Gluck‘s Faithful and Virtuous Night. Gluck has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and had been nominated for the National Book Award before — but this year marks Gluck’s first NBA win.
“My work would not exist without the work of the other finalists, and my colleagues in poetry,” Gluck said, thanking them for their “great and diverse achievements.”
Journalist Evan Osnos won the National Book Award in nonfiction for his impressively subtitled book, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.
Osnos noted that his father, who attended the ceremony, founded publisher PublicAffairs.
“If you go into the writing business, and your last name is Osnos, you feel a little bit like what George W. Bush must have felt like,” he said.
Long the Beijing correspondent for the New Yorker, Osnos explored the tensions that define a modern China torn between economic expansion and authoritarian politics.
In his acceptance speech, Osnos thanked the average Chinese people who agreed to be interviewed for his book.
“They live in a place where it is very dangerous to be honest and vulnerable,” he said.
His book was selected over a list of nominees including John Lahr, Anand Gopal, Edward O. Wilson and Roz Chast, whose illustrated memoir was the only autobiography on the shortlist. That book was singled out from the other nominees by Osnos as a book that had affected him deeply.
In a unanimous decision, the judges honored Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming in the young people’s literature category. Woodson’s memoir traces the tale of her own youth in verse, applying lines of poetry to issues of race and faith in the midst of Jim Crow and the burgeoning Civil Rights movement.
Woodson used her acceptance speech to encourage authors to tell the stories of their elders while they are still here.
“I’m so grateful to my mother for being part of the Great Migration, and getting me and my brother and sister, who are here, to New York City,” she said.
The winner in each category received a prize of $10,000.
To hear the winners — and all of the nominees, for that matter — read from their work, head here.
NPR’s Petra Mayer was present at the ceremony, and she will have a firsthand report on the evening for Morning Edition.